Inside the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery's Town Center, dancers from Li Chiao-Ping's company lie on the ground, pressing their feet against a wall below a large video monitor. It's easy to forget about walls in a building containing a water clock that bubbles every 15 minutes, a garden filled with plants dating back to when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and tons of other fascinating features. Li is mounting a modern dance concert that travels to 13 WID sites May 9-11. Titled Rise Over Run: Off the Wall Dances, it uses movement to tackle big issues like identity, space and place.
Big issues appeal to Li, a WID Fellow and chair of the UW Dance Department. She describes figurative walls she encountered in obtaining access to certain areas of the building.
"I would walk up to a wall, nudge it, see what it's made of, do a little dance, and find out that it could actually be very open," she says.
Themes of investigation, discovery and boundary-pushing underpin Rise as well. Ushers will guide audience members through the WID building, offering unprecedented access to areas where research is being conducted.
Li's hands swirl as she describes her solo on a staircase and then curve when she explains how dancers will lounge on benches around a pool of water before gathering at the stairwell. It's like she's creating a 3D map of her thoughts. After all, the idea for Rise came to her while visiting WID's Living Environments Laboratory with her son. Inspired by the work being done in the lab's C6 CAVE virtual-reality system -- a 3D space that houses synthetic "worlds" real people can interact with -- she arranged for the dance faculty and her choreography students to visit.
That visit led to fruitful partnerships. For instance, Ross Tredinnick, a systems programmer at the lab, created a visualization to accompany Rise. He's part of an enthusiastic team helmed by Dr. Patricia Flatley Brennan, a virtual-reality researcher instrumental in making Rise happen.
Brennan recognized an opportunity for Li to "use very unusual and emerging new technological spaces as inspiration for new choreography" and pushed for a performance at WID since "part of our job is making our space and our science visible to the public."
Watching the dancers navigate the CAVE is fascinating. They maneuver precisely in a glass chamber, winding around the metal beams that support the $2.5 million structure. At another point, a quartet of them squish together in a window. The area's doors are on a timer to prevent them from being propped open. Li's staff and WID employees had to work together to determine how to keep door alarms from sounding during rehearsals, with visitors constantly entering the space. It's one of many problems the group seemed to enjoy troubleshooting.
Town Center programming director Laura Heisler describes the problems as “unique” and the mood as "excited."
"[Rise] is such a beautiful expression of the interdisciplinary aspirations of the work here," she says.